Community Perspective: Fore! A change in course if no new high school in 2022

A contributed Perspectives piece by Kai Degner

Harrisonburg city leaders are working to solve the complex problem of Harrisonburg High School overcrowding.  The school board, working with limits set by a previous city council, is proposing that a second high school open for the 2022-23 school year (Plan A). The city council vote is anticipated on December 10th, after a public hearing.  

School board, staff, volunteers, and architects have diligently worked to design the minimum viable two-school solution that maintains our high educational standards.  To accommodate cost concerns, school board cut solar panels and other features, and even tepidly offered delaying new athletic fields (Plan B). Unfortunately, neither plan addresses the overcrowding problem for at least two years (one challenge is no nearby space for temporary trailers).

Plan A is the best option heretofore – but it might not be approved.  It was already delayed once due to cost, and is now predictably more expensive.  The city manager says we cannot afford it, even before considering the additional operational costs of a second high school. Many are willing to pay more taxes, while others think it’s too much more too fast. 

What can we do if Plans A and B fail? Can this city council offer a new solution that previous councils did not?  Consider that previous councils only entertained expanding HHS with an annex too small for a long-term single high school solution, which is partly why a second school is being pursued. This city council, though, can make a new offer: 205 acres of public land virtually across the street from the current high school. 

Heritage Oaks Golf Course was a dream for a 1990s city council, which promised it could turn a city forest into a million-dollar money-maker.  In 2000, skeptical city voters elected a transpartisan three-person ticket to stop golf course construction. However, despite public sentiment, the ousted officials committed to build it. One newly-elected candidate decided continuing the construction was “the only cost-effective option.”  Heritage Oaks opened in 2001 and has cost over $20M (a $556,000 operational loss is budgeted for 2020). 

Today’s city council may be ready and able to stop this losing golf course operation – and make the school system the winner. Regardless if Plan A in 2022 passes, council should close the course and offer land and parking to assist now with overcrowding.

If council rejects Plan A in 2022, city leaders can consider Plan A or a new Plan C for 2023. Plan C could be offering school board enough former golf course land for one HHS campus on two sides of Garbers Church Road, money to build it (with solar panels), and the recently-purchased 60 acres for the next elementary and/or middle school. 

City council could give school board 90-120 days to explore with educators, architects, financial analysts, and the community the pros and cons of two schools versus one school.  It may be that a single HHS would significantly reduce capital and operating costs, enhance educational opportunities, and reduce potential inequities of a two-school solution. 

— Kai Degner, M.B.A., served on Harrisonburg City Council from 2009-2016.

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